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There is a consistency to the work that Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, whom I will refer to as SM and the Jicks, that makes every one of their albums great in an individual way.
The first album, Stephen Malkmus, was light and irreverent with songs like "the Hook" and "Phantasies" taking the listener to far away lands with pirates and sled dogs. You know the second you hear the heavy tones of "Dragonfly Pie," the opening track on Real Emotional Trash, that you're in for an album with heavy tone and great jams. Real Emotional Trash is my favorite SM and the Jicks album, my bellwether if you will. The litmus test against which I judge all other music. Sparkle Hard, SM and the Jicks' 2018 release, takes all of the best elements of previous albums and cements them together with a perfect track order. It's a full, well-constructed album and one of my favorites.
'Sparkle Hard': A Complete Album
Unlike the heavy tones at the beginning of Real Emotional Trash, the tone at the onset of Sparkle Hard is a hushed piano that crescendos in booming fits of guitar and drums throughout "Cast Off," the album's opening track. Following it is one of my favorites, "Future Suit," an uptempo and breezy song punctuated with retro synth. It has a bright sound that is refreshing.
Sparkle Hard couples these sounds perfectly with the weightier sounds and themes of other songs on the album. Written about the murder of Freddie Grey, there is an anger and sadness in "Bike Lane" that perfectly conveys the mood of America in 2018.
A major reason that I love SM and the Jicks are the great jams, which are perfectly showcased in the 6:41 long "Kite." One of the best parts about how far the band has progressed is showcased in the extended instrumentals. Malkmus started in the static-soaked early nineties as a sound experimenter. Listening to his current guitar work along with the laser focused backing of the Jicks, is a testament to musical evolution.
Sparkle Hard is also interlaced with songs that have a delicate beauty to them. "Solid Silk" paints a vivid scene from first lyrics about kissing under a prairie moon. With a deep and elegant sound courtesy of a string accompaniment, it truly stands as a poignant, thoughtful song. You can see below that even without the strings, SM and the Jicks can still convey the emotion and delicacy of the song that make it great.
"Solid Silk" is the third track on 'Sparkle Hard.'
Malkmus's use of autotune is done at just the right level to keep it from being silly. "Brethren" sees a lot of it, but it is done in a creative way that adds a unique sound to the song on an album full of them.
This is an album that has the right kind of ebb and flow. The perfect mixture of high-energy songs, laced with sadness and anger, along with slow, self-reflective, and heartfelt songs. I guess that is why I think this is one of the best albums that will come out this year, or in any year, really. It is just the right flow and combination of unique songs. Sparkle Hard tells a story that keeps you interested the whole journey.
I have been a long time fan of SM and the Jicks and I waited to see the album live in Milwaukee as my first listen. It was great to hear it live before the studio. The band had strong stage presence and the songs were played with high energy. I even got some autographs, so it was well worth it. Below is Sparkle Hard: The Movie, a short film that contains interviews and tidbits of songs.
'Sparkle Hard: The Movie'
A fun short film that incorporates elements of the album.